August in South Africa is celebrated as Women’s Month in commemoration of the iconic Women’s March that took place on 09 August 1956. Previous demonstrations almost always turned violent with the police firing live ammunition at the demonstrators, but this didn’t happen at the Women’s March. Four brave women, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophia Williams led over 20 000 fearless women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria armed with 14 000 signed *petitions to present to Prime Minister Strijdom. The women, who came from all over South Africa and from all races, were petitioning to do away with the so-called ‘dompas’ (dumb pass). Under this apartheid law all non-whites had to carry pass books when they were outside their homelands or designated areas or they would be arrested.
On the way to the Union Buildings the women sang a song which became famous as a symbol of women’s courage and strength in the struggle for freedom:
‘Wathint’ abafazi, Strijdom, wathint’ imbokodo,uza kufa!
(When you strike the women, Strijdom, you strike a rock, you will be crushed (you will die)!)
It was Lilian Ngoyi who knocked on Strijdom’s office door to hand him the petitions, but he wasn’t there and she was forced to leave the petitions outside the door. When she rejoined the crowd she suggested they stand for thirty minutes – in absolute silence!
Lilian Ngoyi became an icon in the struggle against apartheid that day, but she had come on a long journey to reach that point. Lilian was born in 1911 in Pretoria. Her dream was to become a teacher but she was forced to leave school to help support her family and in 1935 she worked as a domestic servant for three months – a job she despised and which led her to train to become a nurse. However, she ended up as a machinist working in a clothing factory and it was there that she became involved in the Garment’s Worker’s Union (Native Branch) and became an official in the union. She joined the ANC during the 1950 Defiance Campaign and was arrested for using facilities in a post office that were reserved for white people only.
It was Lilian’s public speaking skills and energy that won her the hearts of the masses and within a year of joining the ANC she had climbed the ranks, becoming the very first woman to be elected into the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) in 1956. Her fighting spirit was met with full resistance from the apartheid government and in the same year she was charged with high treason and stood trial in 1961. During the trial she was imprisoned for five months under the state of emergency. She spent much of this time in solitary confinement. In 1962 she was banned for fifteen years which meant she was not allowed to go outside Orlando Township in Johannesburg where she lived. Despite this, until her dying day, she refused to give in.
Mma Ngoyi finally succumbed to heart complications in 1980 at the age of 69 and is buried in Avalon Cemetery in Soweto. Helen Joseph, another anti-apartheid activist who died in 1992, is buried alongside her. Strijdom Square, where the iconic march began was renamed Lilian Ngoyi Square in her honour on the 50th anniversary of the Women’s March.
Lilian Ngoyi is often referred to as the ‘Mother of Black Resistance’ and her legacy lives on in the words that have come to represent women’s strength and resistance: Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo!
The petition had been created by the Federation of South African Women and printed by the Indian Youth Congress.:4 The petition reads:
We, the women of South Africa, have come here today. We African women know too well the effect this law upon our homes, our children. We, who are not African women know how our sisters suffer. For to us, an insult to African women is an insult to all women.
* That homes will be broken up when women are arrested under pass laws.
* That women and young girls will be exposed to humiliation and degradation at the hands of pass-searching policemen.
* That women will lose their right to move freely from one place to another.
We, voters and voteless, call upon your government not to issue passes to African women. We shall not resist until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom, justice and security.
— Presented to Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom, 9 August 1956.
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